How Team Leaders Can Transform Complaints into Opportunities

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“I’m so tired of these tedious meetings.” “There’s always too much to do. It’s such a drag.” “Once again, they decided without consulting us. It figures.” “Just when I thought we’d get a break, another urgent request came in. It never ends.”

How frequently do you hear complaining—whining, frustrated, or resentful communication like the comments above—in your work environment? It’s probably fairly often, as complaining is a natural way to communicate for many people.

Unfortunately, conversations filled with complaints often don’t result in positive outcomes. Complaining tends to trigger responses from others that just make the situation worse. But there’s more to complaints than you might imagine, and there are reliable and effective ways to transform complaining, whether you’re doing it yourself or hearing it from others.

Once we recognize what’s actually going on beneath complaints, we gain the power to understand them, respond to them constructively, and even use them to reveal new opportunities for ourselves and our teams.

“Complaining: There’s More to It Than You Might Imagine” — Amy Yeager, Chief Knowledge Officer at Corentus, Inc. shares her compelling personal and professional stories about complaining—clarifying what it is, what impact it has, and what can be done to transform complaints into more constructive communication.

Recognizing Complaints by Detecting the Tone

Before we can effectively respond to complaints, we need to be able to recognize them. The content of a complaint typically focuses on something the speaker doesn’t want—such as a particular inconvenience (“What a hassle”), lack of time or money (“There’s never enough”), or something that seems unfair (“They never thought about how this would affect us”).

But the best indicator of complaining is the tone of voice, which may sound whining, helpless, hopeless, resigned, frustrated, or resentful. Those voice tones can transform virtually any communication into a complaint. (Imagine the otherwise neutral comments, “I have a meeting at 4 pm,” “We’re switching to the new platform today,” or simply “Hello” expressed with a whine and a frustrated sigh.)

Recognizing Complaints Tip: If you work with someone who complains frequently, think about how their complaining tends to affect you. Do you feel annoyed? Frustrated? Impatient? Then, the next time you find yourself feeling that way around them, take that as a cue to observe the person’s communication. Step back for a moment and ask yourself if what you’re hearing are complaints. If the answer is yes, you can use the other tips in this article to respond effectively.

 The Underlying Secret to Understanding Complaints

The key to understanding complaints is realizing what’s going on underneath the communication. Whenever we complain, there is something that we want or need, but we’re not expressing it directly. For example, many employees want greater autonomy, more freedom to choose how they go about their work. But often, they don’t express that directly. Instead, they complain: “I’m sick of all this micromanaging. The managers here don’t trust us to do our jobs.” In the same way, many team leaders want more two-way communication with other teams and other departments. But what they say is, “Of course, nobody thought to involve us in those discussions.”

While a person who’s complaining may want their situation to change, complaints rarely lead to a positive resolution. When we complain, our attention gets stuck on what we don’t want and don’t need: our burdens. Meanwhile, what we do want and need—our opportunity to make things better—may never get communicated to the people around us, or even to ourselves.

And it gets worse. Complaining carries an emotional tone: the feeling of being burdened. There is a sense of frustration, resentment, resignation, or hopelessness. That’s what turns a neutral statement like “I have a meeting at 4 pm” into a complaint. This emotional tone tends to trigger the people around us to respond in counterproductive ways, making a desirable outcome even less likely.

Understanding Complaints Tip: Knowing that there’s something deeper underlying complaints can help you shift out of your original mindset (perhaps annoyed, frustrated, etc.) to a sense of curiosity. Whenever you notice a complaint from a colleague—or even from yourself—see if you can get curious about what’s happening underneath.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls of Reacting to Complaints

When someone complains, others typically respond in one of three unconstructive ways. Consider the earlier example: “I’m sick of all this micromanaging.” Listeners may respond by:

  1. Joining: Adding in their own complaints, such as, “Yeah, it’s ridiculous. We have no say in how we do our work.” This type of response simply fuels the complaints by multiplying them.
  2. Fixing: Offering solutions that may seem helpful, but usually fail to satisfy the actual needs of the person complaining. The person often rejects the proposed solutions, leading to further frustration for all involved. For example, in response to the suggestion, “Why don’t you meet with your manager and explain your concerns?” they might say, “That won’t help. She’ll never change.”
  3. Attacking: Blaming or criticizing the complainer. In the micromanagement example, an attack might sound like, “Don’t be so negative. Whining about it isn’t going to help.” It’s no surprise that attacks seldom lead to effective problem-solving conversations.

Reacting to Complaints Tip: Identify your own habitual reaction to complaints. (If you aren’t sure how you tend to react, try asking a friend or family member what they observe you doing.) If that reaction tends to do more harm than good, ask someone close to you to speak up whenever they hear you doing it. Eventually, you can notice it yourself, stop before you speak, and choose a different response instead.

 Transforming Complaints into Opportunities

If joining, fixing, and attacking are counterproductive, what can you do instead in response to complaints? As it turns out, the secret to understanding complaints—the realization that they conceal an underlying want or need—is also the secret to resolving them. There are two primary questions to consider: 1) What does the person really want or need? (What’s driving the complaint?) And 2) What can they do to help make that happen? (What’s the opportunity to make things better?)

Resist the urge to answer those two questions yourself and jump to proposing a solution (“fixing”). Instead, stay curious, and engage in inquiry. You might ask the person who’s complaining, “What do you really want in this situation?” or “What do you really need right now?” Once they’re able to answer that question, you can prompt them to come up with possible solutions: “What could you do to help make that happen?” or “What’s a first step you could take to move toward that?”

In addition to bringing in new, useful information, this type of inquiry can help a person who’s complaining to shift out of a passive, helpless mindset into a more active, engaged, and empowered frame of mind. The more you and your team can make this shift, the better able you’ll be to identify and resolve underlying issues that may challenge both effectiveness and morale at work. Instead of seeing burdens, you can see promising opportunities for positive change. And that can be truly transformative.

Transforming Complaints Tip: As you try out new responses to complaints, it’s helpful to begin with yourself. If you catch yourself complaining, whether out loud or just in your thinking, pause and consider, “What do I really want? What do I really need?” And then, “What can I do to help get that to happen?” Shifting your own mindset around frustrating issues can serve as powerful role modeling to the rest of your team and entire organization.